With a long track record as a children's illustrator, our showcased artist this month Martha Lightfoot took a break to overhaul her work, develop her own stories and explore fresh dynamic styles. See more of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.

An image that has stayed with me for years is an illustration of patterned boots walking past a window, from Quentin Blake’s Snuff. I can’t remember much about the story, but there was something magical about the variety of colours and shapes that sparked off my imagination.


Some favourite books that I still like to read. I was given Over Sea Under Stone by my headmaster when I left primary school, and it was unlike anything I’d read before.

It took me a while to realise that I wanted to be an illustrator, and even longer to know that I wanted to write as well, although I loved doing both as a child.

At ten I wanted to be in the Swallows and Amazons, and liked to draw the punks I saw in the street.

After an Art Foundation course and an Art History/Italian degree, I was finishing an MA in Venetian Art History when it suddenly hit me – I didn’t want to write about other people’s art anymore, I wanted to illustrate children’s books! It was like a lightbulb went on in my head… 

I moved to London and started going to classes, drawing in museums and working making children’s fancy dress costumes and as a Studio Assistant. Eventually I had some card designs and wrapping paper published by Fat Cat Cards and Phoenix Trading, and began sending work out to publishers. 

In 2005 I illustrated my first children’s book, One Lucky Duck by Alison Maloney for Meadowside Books, and learned so much about the world of picture books there. This led to more books for them and other publishers including Child’s Play, Quarto and Pearson. 


After illustrating several picture books using a heavy acrylic outline, I was keen to work in ink and pencil instead.

However, after ten years I was feeling burnt out. I’d illustrated 13 more books and been able to build a studio in my garden, but was longing to spend more time with my three young children. I also wanted to experiment with different materials, be more playful and write my own books. 

I’ve often represented my family as dogs, particularly when the kids were very small.


I turned down the next series of books, and decided to spend some time finding out how I really wanted to work.

After starting an Art Club at my kids’ school with illustrator Hannah Dyson, I discovered that making art with others felt really important after so long working alone to meet deadlines. 

I began teaching Sketchbooking courses for adults at my local Arts Centre, Family Art Workshops at a museum, and Art Sessions for kids and Mums at a Women’s Refuge. Teaching and helping others to make art also meant that I began to unravel how I worked and what I was making.

Finding out what books I really wanted to make took longer than I imagined; as in 2017 a diagnosis of breast cancer, treatment and recovery meant that I needed to slow down. 

This reflective time allowed me to think about whether I really wanted to illustrate children’s books – I was drawn to so many other things. I dreamed of painting big canvases, but only had the energy for small collages and drawings. 


Secret Garden was the first painting I made when I got back into the studio – I’d never painted anything like it before.

 I was able to write and draw a lot without wondering what others would think of my work, as I was off social media and had parted amicably from my agent, so in some ways this was liberating!

As I recovered I went on lots of courses – my favourites were papercutting for lightboxes, collage, and screen printing. 


I really enjoyed making this papercut lightbox, at a lovely course run by Courtney Dyer at the House of Illustration.

I also set up an Etsy shop called Elegant and Burly where I sell cards and artwork alongside jewellery maker Sarah Lowe, agreeing to only make stuff that we loved and that made us laugh. 


I designed the Elegant and Burly-ometer to help us achieve a balance of elegance and burliness in everyday life.

After playing around with lots of materials I found the answer to my question: I did still want to illustrate children’s books, and was equally passionate about writing them too, both picture books and middle grade. I applied for the Arts Council England’s ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ grant and was very excited to get funding to devote time to writing, alongside my illustration practice. 


A quick sketch from an early morning walk.

I set myself a list of goals (beginning with joining SCBWI!) and began the brilliant course ‘Your Children’s Book’, which was run online during lockdown by the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook/Bloomsbury and taught by Christopher Edge. Chris’s knowledge and generosity really inspired me, and I found I was writing in a way I hadn’t written before and looking at my words with new eyes.

I also joined the illustration course ‘Find Your Creative Voice’ during lockdown, run online by Helen Stephens, Katie Chappell and Tania Willis of The Good Ship Illustration.


A 10 minute timed drawing with the Good Ship Illustration Art Club – I find working quickly like this is a really good warm up before making more finished work.

This fantastic six week course took me through various drawing tasks, such as changing perspective and exploring palettes, and soon I found I was working in a much looser style, making more confident marks, and playing with restricted palettes and different materials.

Doing quick timed drawings at their Art Club on Instagram on Friday nights has made a huge difference too, with the bonus of really making me laugh (and it’s free)! 


Another 10 minute Art Club drawing, this time focusing on the negative space between the objects.

Now I draw regularly on location, focusing on the surroundings and using limited materials, whereas before I would mainly draw people when I was out and about. 

Alongside my developmental sketchbook work I’m working on some new picture book stories, starting a fresh portfolio, and writing my Middle Grade story most days, even if only a few paragraphs. It feels a world away from where I was five years ago!


A quick holiday sketch!

Top Tips

My best advice would be to draw from life regularly, experiment with different/limited materials, join Art Club on Friday nights and listen to Neil Gaiman’s excellent talk Make Good Art!



 See more of Martha's work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.

Her personal website is here, and Etsy shop here. Follow Martha on Instagram and Twitter.



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